Epiphanies for Everybody

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January 30, 20222 min read


Strategy is about saying no. “No” is hard.

Most people tend to take on more than they can possibly achieve. Attribute whatever rationale to it you want, but the result is the same. Position in a hierarchy doesn’t change that tendency.

We know this. We manage our time, every day. We never do all the things we could do, because there isn’t enough time.

The same is true of companies. Nobody can do it all.

As a company develops more hierarchy, the number of things it tries to do simultaneously often multiplies, and its ability to achieve them decreases respectively.

At a senior level, strategy is almost all about the things you’ll say no to. There’s a never ending list of things begging you to say yes to them. You have the capacity to do one. Large organisations have the capacity to do a handful. Nobody has the capacity to do them all. If your strategy doesn’t say no to most things, it’s not an effective strategy.

Strategy is how you align the company around a small number of priorities and say, “Everything not on this list can wait.” Strategy is what tells everybody, at every level, to choose priority A over priority B.

Without a well-communicated strategy, everybody does what they think is best. Most people will do what benefits them, while telling themselves it benefits the company. Some people will do what benefits the company, even at personal expense. Regardless, the result of everybody prioritising work using their own criteria is that too much is being done simultaneously, and much of it doesn’t fit together.

Sound strategy is difficult to talk about. Not because what I’m saying new to most people, but because most strategies aren’t worth the paper they’re written on, and nobody likes it when it’s pointed out that the emperor is naked.

I see strategies that mainly fall into a few categories:

1. Continue doing everything. Try to satisfy every market, and every niche. These don’t allow anybody to say no.
2. Word salad. Fill multiple pages with words, but don’t say anything of value, or concrete. These don’t tell anybody what to say no to.
3. List goals. Anything that says, “Be the best…”, “Capture the market…”, “Maximise profits…” falls into this category. These are aspirations, not strategies.

A solid strategy usually fits on 1/2–1 side of A4 paper. It identifies the problem the strategy is addressing, the principles that guide solving that problem, and a set of concrete actions that will be taken to solve it.

Most organisations can’t tell you what problem they’re facing, or how they’re going to solve it.

Strategy should be at the core of what organisations do. It’s worth taking the time to do it, and do it well. And more than that, it’s worth making it accessible, with simple, straightforward language.

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Epiphanies for Everybody

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